In preparations similar to trainer Nick Zito's handling of Birdstone between his off-the-board Kentucky Derby (gr. I) finish and his victory in the 2004 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Wicked Strong appears to be progressing through regular work on a training track.
While Zito worked with Birdstone on the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga Race Course, Wicked Strong's Belmont Park-based trainer Jimmy Jerkens has used the one-mile training surface at the Elmont, N.Y., oval.
"We wanted to keep him on the training track to prevent him from going too fast," Jerkens said. "We wanted to keep that two-turn kind of a mind frame going into the Belmont, try to increase our chances of him settling early in the race and saving something for the end."
Jerkens said because Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong already has been running well at longer distances, he has not employed any special wrinkles to the Hard Spun colt's preparation for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. Jerkens said his colt has thrived under a steady workload and he hopes to see him continue to move forward, as he has throughout the spring.
In two breezes at the training track to date since the Derby, Wicked Strong worked five furlongs in 1:01.84 May 18, eighth fastest of 20 moves at the distance that day; and one mile in 1:39.59 May 25 in the only work at the distance that day. Jerkens, who is stabled away from the main track at Belmont and typically uses the training track, was pleased with the one-mile work in which Wicked Strong galloped out 1 1/8 miles in 1:54.
Of the four horses who had their Triple Crown bids come up short in the Belmont Stakes in the 21st century, two were foiled by horses who raced in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, and then won the Belmont. A year before Birdstone took that path to Belmont success and ended Smarty Jones ' Triple Crown bid, Derby runner-up Empire Maker skipped the Preakness before winning the New York classic, halting Funny Cide's bid for history.
Wicked Strong will be trying to halt the Triple Crown bid of Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome.
He enters off a fourth-place Derby finish in which he started from the outside post in the field of 19. Before that effort, Wicked Strong rallied from sixth to win the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Jerkens said he and the owners planned to skip the Preakness unless Wicked Strong won the Derby. That decision was made easier when the Wood Memorial winner ran down on the Churchill Downs surface. The extra time since the Derby has allowed sore skin near the pasterns to heal.
"I guess in the backs of our mind, we always thought that the Belmont would be his best shot to win of all the Triple Crown races," Jerkens said. "It's right in our backyard and the distance is probably more up his alley than some of the others in there."
Jerkens, who placed third with Thomas Jo in the 1998 Belmont, will be saddling his third Belmont starter. He said Wicked Strong has not run down on the New York surfaces, which he has handled better.
As of May 29, Wicked Strong is the only grade I winner besides California Chrome being pointed to this year's Belmont. The field could have as many as five other starters who have placed in grade I races.